02 February 2010

Could we be any safer?

In last Saturday’s Guardian, (30.1.2010) an article by Elizabeth Weil entitled ‘Could we be any happier?’ explored the benefits of couples therapy for a marriage that was, in Weil’s words ‘doing ok.’ It was, as you might expect, a very personal, honest account of a relationship, and a very clear analysis of some aspects of one couple’s’ journey towards greater understanding and insight into their marriage. It barely mentioned the therapist, who, over six weeks, listened and offered feedback. However the therapy appeared to trigger a particularly powerful conflict within the marriage, which in turn led to new insights into the way the relationship worked. At one point the author describes marital therapy as ‘helpful but toxic’ but goes on to say that the subsequent combination of self help books and further therapy helped the couple to arrive at the ‘good enough marriage’, one in which ‘each allows the other to keep growing’ and to afford the other some of the strength and bravery required to face the world.

There are a number of reasons why, for me, this article illustrates important points relevant to the current debate on statutory regulation of the so called ‘talking therapies.’ It provides a particularly personal account from a client’s perspective about a highly personal and very common experience. Twenty years ago, an article like this would not have appeared in a newspaper. More and more clients and patients are telling their stories, sharing their experiences in very public places. Articles and books are increasingly being written by people on the receiving end of therapy, not just those providing it, and they all increase our collective understanding in some way – both of therapy and often of ourselves. This reflects a wider change within society – empowerment is not a word we like to use anymore but it is, some would say, a social movement towards greater transparency, greater involvement and power sharing, and greater public analysis of private, intimate moments in human experience. The expert or professional voice is no longer centre stage in the public narrative on well being. Most of us, most of the time, would see this as a positive development for us as a society.

Those who are arguing that psychotherapy and counselling should not be subject to the same levels of public accountability as doctors, psychologists, osteopaths or social workers seem to me to be ignoring these changes within wider society – the social movement towards greater public accountability and transparency across all industries paid to serve the public. With the rise in those who seek to share their experience, there comes a greater demand for shared responsibility for growth and personal development. This is happening for a huge variety of individuals, from those like Weil who shared her thoughts on her marriage, to others who talk about their experience of living with Parkinsons disease, or arthritis, aspergers syndrome or cancer.

This is one of the reasons why psychotherapy can no longer claim to be different, at least, not in relation to the public demand for accountability. The world has changed. Those opposed to public accountability have nothing to fear from the regulatory model being proposed by the Health Professions Council. We are not going to be prescriptive, we do not have a list of 450 rules, we are not going to require any therapist to conform to a medical model.

Our interest is simple: we want to put in place a legal framework to protect the public from the tiny minority of therapists who fail to treat their clients as equals, who abuse their position of power, and do not recognise the changes within society which demand that all professions who serve the public must be accountable to those outside their own ranks. If Elizabeth Weil had so chosen, she could have opted to complain about her therapist. She had no reason to, but if she had, the UK would have had no legal framework for allowing her to do so. In an age of greater transparency, this cannot be right and it cannot be good for psychotherapists any more than it is bad for the public.

Anna van der Gaag
Chair HPC